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Broken Government

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Republicans are the Reason Secretary Sebelius Won't Resign

October 26th 2013

Kathleen Sebelius

As Congress begins investigations into the Affordable Care Act rollout and the healthcare.gov flaws, Republicans are calling for resignations as far up as the Secretary of Health and Human Services. The logic goes: if managerial issues were behind failures to test the website component of the federal health care exchange, we need new management.

That concern is a valid one. In the private sector and often times in the public sector, when misakes happen—particularly in an area critical to the executive's interests—heads roll.

Yet, Kathleen Sebelius will stay, and Republicans have no one to blame but themselves.

Why is this? In an ironic twist of fate the Republican Party's obsession with filibustering, delaying, or holding executive branch nominations will finally have negative consequences for the GOP instead of the president.

Over the past several years, Republicans in Congress had refused to confirm a director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau because they did not like the law that authorized the agency. They refused to confirm nominees to the National Labor Relations Board because of opposition to unions. They put a hold on the chairman of the Federal Communications Commission for fear he may require more transparency in campaign activity. The examples go on.

Why, then, would President Obama remove Secretary Sebelius and nominate a replacement? The HHS Secretary oversees the implementation of the Affordable Care Act. And GOP opposition to CFPB or NLRB or FCC pales in comparison to the visceral and existential contempt the party feels toward Obamacare. Given such opposition, the president would be foolish to make such a change in HHS leadership.

The nomination of Richard Cordray to head the new CFPB is a perfect parallel. Republicans in Congress opposed this nomination—for years—not because Mr. Cordray was unqualified. In fact, some Senate Republicans praised his qualifications, but opposition to the structure of CFPB motivated a filibuster. Republicans didn't oppose the nominee; they opposed the Dodd-Frank financial reform legislation.

This month, Republican opposition to the Affordable Care Act drove the party to shutdown the U.S. Government for over two weeks and brought Treasury to the brink of defaulting on the nation’s debt. Who in their right mind thinks the GOP won't put a hold on or filibuster a—or ANY—prospective nominee to lead HHS?

A prospective HHS Secretary would face the same—or likely greater—opposition, regardless of his or her qualifications for the post. While Republicans spit venom at the consequences of the Dodd-Frank law, GOP opposition to Obamacare is more fundamental, leading some to call it a threat to freedom and American life.

As a result, one thing is clear: Kathleen Sebelius will be Mr. Obama's last HHS Secretary to get Senate confirmation. That may be a problem, particularly if the managerial problems in federal exchange technology ultimately fall in her lap. However, any chance that the president will reasonably and effectively address managerial problems with a change in personnel is completely undermined by a broken confirmation system in the United States Senate.

As Republicans continue their investigations into the Obamacare rollout and strike harmony in the anthem of calls for resignations, they will find themselves victims of their own undoing. Each day that Secretary Sebelius reports for work, Republicans can rest assured of one fact: she remains at her job not because the 111th Congress confirmed her, but because the 113th Congress is too dysfunctional to confirm her successor.

John Hudak is a fellow in Governance Studies at Brookings and Managing Editor of the FixGov blog. His research examines questions of presidential power in the contexts of administration, personnel, and public policy.


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